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Cathy’s Wager

November 21, 2013

I know you guys might be getting kind of exhausted from all the oversharing that’s been happening on mathbabe this week. I am too. But let me finish the phase with one piece of advice which I hope you find helpful.

I call it “Cathy’s Wager” (h/t Chris Wiggins) in reference to a much more famous and better idea called Pascal’s Wager. That, you may remember, is the argument that you might as well be a good person because there’s either a god, who cares, or there isn’t, in which case you haven’t lost all that much.

So here’s my version, and it refers to how other people treat you and how you react. I’ll assume most people treat you nicely most of the time, and then sometimes someone doesn’t treat you nicely. How do you react?

My theory is that you always assume it’s something they’re going through, and you try to never take it personally. Here are some examples.

  1. You’re friends with someone and all of a sudden they stop writing back to your emails. Assume they’re going through something, maybe a depression, maybe a break-up, maybe they just fell in love or moved jobs. It’s not about you and you shouldn’t take it personally. Consider writing to them and saying you’re there for them if they need a friend, or just do nothing and let them take their time, depending on how close a friend they are and how likely each of those scenarios is. Err on the side of compassion, not blame.
  2. You’re trying to set up a meeting with someone professionally and they never get back to you, or even worse, they don’t show up for the planned meeting and never explain why. First, always assume this has nothing to do with you. Maybe the got into a fight with their significant other, maybe they just got fired. You have no idea. But in order to avoid this from happening, do remember to confirm business meetings the day of, if it’s in the afternoon, or the afternoon before, if it’s in the morning, especially if the meeting was made more than a week in advance.
  3. You have what you think is an interesting if provocative conversation with someone and they never talk to you again, and you hear 2nd or 3rd hand (or both) that they hate your guts. Again, it’s not about you. There was some trigger in that conversation, and yes if you want to be sensitive you could try to go back over the conversation in your head and figure out what the heck happened. Do it once, but if you are convinced you meant no offense, then assume that person is going through something. They might even get over it and want to make up someday. Who knows, maybe part of what they like in life is getting offended and complaining. For example, maybe they take this article to heart entitled “The 14 Habits of Highly Miserable People.”
  4. Someone gets into your face and tells you you’re an awful person and are being mean to them for whatever reason. Not about you.

As I’m sure you can see, the assumption that “it’s not about me” is super useful and time-saving. I use it a lot, which means I don’t spend a lot of time second guessing myself or trying to change things that I can’t change about other people’s feelings. It’s kind of a selfish version of the Serenity Prayer, if you will, without all the religious stuff.

And this is not to say I don’t spend time trying to mend differences and reach out to my friends! I totally do! I just don’t feel personally affected if it doesn’t work. And I think that actually helps me do it more often in the end.

One caveat: the above examples work pretty well unless you are actually an awful person. I’m assuming you’re not. If you are actually a bad person, please don’t rely on Cathy’s Wager, thanks. Of course that begs the question of whether anyone actually thinks they’re awful, and if you go there, consider the idea that awful people are already using Cathy’s Wager, so you may as well too.

Categories: musing
  1. FogOfWar
    November 21, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Almost unbelievably good advice! People go through a lot of shit and when they do, by human nature they lash out at those around them who often have nothing to do with the shit they’re going through.



  2. Tara
    November 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    I’ve been trying to follow this mantra myself lately. Nice to see it explained so well!


  3. November 22, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I am chewing on this one…there is so much truth here. My daughter tells me I am not in control which is pretty much the same as saying nothing is my fault ever. I loved the 14 ways to make myself miserable…I find myself working on two or three of those at a time. I really must stop doing that.

    Anyway, thank you for the food for thought. Great post!

    b+ (Retire in Style Blog)


  4. November 27, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    I’m sure you’re probably aware, but maybe your readers aren’t, that Pascal’s Wager has been laid to rest a while ago. Here’s how to dismantle it:

    It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the payoff grows much faster than the probability can approach zero, hence the wager. However, given the incalculably small probability of this one particular pay-off (the existence of a benevolent god granting infinite utility), we must also take into account the equal probability of there being a demon god who will punish you forever — and also any other imaginary scenario we can dream up. Given no conditional reason to favor one of these outcomes over another, they must all be given equal weight, and the expected value of any one particular strategy approaches 0.


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